Description is always over or under



Description is the most overrated instrument in the novelist's toolkit. You can remove half of the description from a beginner's novel and greatly improve the book. Remember readers are smart; they have seen a lot, know a lot, and they can imagine a lot. So don't describe every little thing.

When you do use description, weave it into the story, into the action, into the dialogue. Readers don't give a damn about description. They want the story to start, and they are impatient until it does. If you really must, drag in all your background and description later, after your readers are hooked by the story.

Everything you choose to show readers should be important or related to the plot and the characters. It is a good idea to color your descriptions with emotion. If readers find out about a sunset, a house, a cat, through how a character feels about its qualities, they'll feel it's an ongoing part of the story.

Closely related to getting description across in a novel is getting information across. We call this exposition. See how dialogue used to get across information is done in this section of Paramour by Gerald Petievich.

(Jack tells Marilyn that he searched her apartment a few days earlier):

"I just hope my apartment was decent when you conducted the search," Marilyn said.


"You know a lot about me," she said, "but I know absolutely nothing about you."

"I've been on the White House Detail since..."

"Are you married, Jack?"

He shook his head.

"Why not?" she said.

"Never got around to it, I guess."

"Or seldom wanted to get around to it?"

You see. We were told some of his background through his words, not someone else talking about him.

Here's another example of an effective use of dialogue to present information to readers, from Degree of Guilt by Richard North Patterson.

(Attorney Terri is interviewing an older actress who once knew famous actress Laura Chase before Laura killed herself.)

"How did you meet Laura Chase?" Terri asked.

"As you may or may not know, my father ran Paramount Studios then, so they stuck me in the family business.”

“I didn’t know.”

"Eventually, I developed a perverse desire to be more important than he was. But my first job was a supporting role as Laura Chase's kid sister, for which my major qualification was to be more or less flat chested."

"I've hadn't seen that one, I guess."

"It never got made.” Caldwell's voice grew softer. "Laura killed herself just before our biggest scene."

Let’s use all the senses in our novel.

Descriptive writing is typically describing how something looks. Painting a picture for your readers, gives them something to visualize. However, to limit yourself to how things look is one dimensional.

You also can describe how things sound, taste, smell and how they feel to the touch. Obviously, you don't need to evoke every single sense. Be aware there are other senses beyond the obvious one and describing things in a different way can sometimes be even more powerful. What is important in writing is that readers are reached on different levels. Therefore, it is important to use those words to help readers see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

In my work with thousands of writing students online, I found most were guilty of either over or under when it came to the description. 

There are only two main purposes to write descriptions at all.

To provide imagery to help readers understand the setting.

To assist in characterization by providing readers something to imagine when thinking about your characters.

Readers need something to see in their mind in order to become absorbed in the dream world you have created for them. Vivid images can often provide a sense of realism amongst the fiction. You need to help readers quickly and easily imagine the scene. Readers won’t engage emotionally in the story unless it feels real to them. Minimal descriptive details help them believe it is real.

However, too much detail will overwhelm readers. What I see from beginning writers is too much mundane detail, going beyond what is necessary for simply setting the scene. Beginning a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish.

Readers need a little something to picture in their mind’s eye. However, they don’t need much help. They just need a few basic details. Their imaginations will fill in the rest.

If you write specific details about what characters are wearing, about the apple tree in the front yard, or about the poor dog who has only three legs, readers will start skipping your descriptions. What is even worse, they might just quit reading.

Don't go into detail describing places and things. Those descriptions will bring the action to a standstill. Leave out the part readers tend to skip. A novel is about what you choose to show your reader. Same for description.

Be careful to describe only what's important because readers will assume it is important because you pointed it out. When you give something weight by mentioning it, readers naturally assume it is important.

"Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader’s," writes Stephen King. “The important part isn't writing enough, but limiting how much you say.”

Here’s an example of subtle description from Rapture in Reno:

Veronica drove to the modest two-story adobe-like office building on Virginia Street and parked in a space under a sign, which read “For our visitors.” The small fountain at the door was dry, probably shut off for water restrictions since California and Nevada were still suffering a drought.

This gives a sense that the office building is probably in a strip mall and not an expensive downtown skyscraper.

Simply paint a general picture and move on.

Carefully planned descriptive details can give clues to the character’s personality. Just clues. It would be okay to mention Veronica’s “uniform” of jeans, a Reno Envy t-shirt, and black ballet flats. However, there is no need to describe the outfit of every character who appears in the story.

What is the key to a good description?

The key to good description is clarity, both in observation and in writing. Use fresh images and simple vocabulary to avoid exhausting your reader. Your main job as a writer is to continue the forward motion of the story. Make sure you only include details that move your story forward and persuade your readers to continue reading.

Be careful your research does not eclipse the story. Research belongs in the background. You may be excited about what you have learned, but readers are much more interested in your character and your story.

That's why, in one scene in my book Revenge in Reno, I show the bad guy shaving his head with a straight razor, which he prefers to cheap safety razors. I noted it because, later, Veronica uses the razor to cut her bonds and escape. I do not describe the paintings on the wall in the cabin or the television set or the color of the carpet because they're not important and because readers can imagine those ordinary things for themselves.

Don't describe what doesn't need describing.

Don't describe doorknobs, parking garages, easy chairs or carpets unless they differ from the norm for some reason. Everyone knows what knobs, garages, and chairs look like. Unless there is something radically different about the item, don't describe it.

Stay away from clichés when you write description. Dump those deep forests, bustling crowds and ribbons of highways. They're clichés. If you have read it in more than one novel, it is probably overused and overexposed.

One more hint about describing a setting.

Rather than describe the setting from your eyes, strive to use the viewpoint character's eyes. Do not be afraid to include similes to help set the scene. However, stay away from clichés everyone has heard already. Try to be original. Invent your own descriptions. Instead of describing all the furniture in an apartment, try this:

Veronica and Carol sat at either end of a black leather couch in the tastefully decorated living room of Carol’s Lake Tahoe apartment, grief rolling across the space between them like a wash of salt water. “I still expect to see him at the door,” Carol said. She straightened the new Time magazine on the table.

Instead of describing the weather by writing, "It was a cold, windy day," try showing it:

Veronica looked out at the water of the Truckee River. Reflecting the stormy skies, the water rippled in the breeze like stretched gray silk.

Instead of, "Paul knew a storm was brewing...” try this:

Paul leaned against the cold metal railing, watching the clouds like dark bruises missing and swelling on the bleak horizon.

Description is the most overrated instrument in the novelist's toolkit. Usually, you can remove half of the description from a beginner's novel and greatly improve the book. Remember readers are smart; they have seen a lot, know a lot, and they can imagine a lot. So don't describe every little thing.

So, bottom line: don't over-describe.

----- (From NOVEL SECRETS available in paperback and Kindle form.)


Global Scriggler.DomainModel.Publication.Visibility
There's more where that came from!